Senator Rand Paul’s “Stand With Israel Act” reminds me of a pickle I got myself into after the Six Day War. I’d reached Israel three weeks after the fighting and an escort had taken me onto the liberated Golan Heights. When we stopped near a burned-out tank, I hopped out of our jeep and dashed over to take a look, until I realized that people were shouting at me to stop. Your tyro of a correspondent had walked into a minefield.
So has Senator Paul with his bill to block foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority. He’s sallied onto what I’ve taken to calling the most dangerous ground in the Middle East. It’s not Judea, Samaria, Gaza, or the Golan. Rather it’s the ground between the White House and the United States Congress. They are battling for supremacy in foreign affairs, and this is territory where one really wants to watch one’s step.
The idea of Rand Paul’s bill is to deny the Obama administration discretion in parceling out foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority. It would prohibit the administration from extending such aid absent the ability of the president to certify that, among other things, the PA has met six conditions. These include having “honored previous diplomatic agreements” and “formally recognized the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.”
This has caused a tumult among our most distinguished pro-Israel institutions. The measure is supported by the Zionist Organization of America but opposed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It’s also opposed by another pro-Israel institution, Elliott Abrams, who is a former assistant secretary of state. One of our most intrepid columnists, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, calls the measure a “phony pro-Israel bill” and dubs Senator Paul “craftier than his father.”
This contretemps has erupted only weeks after the dust settled on another effort to deny the Obama administration discretion in the Middle East — the Nuclear Weapon-Free Iran Act. Remember that bill? It was advanced by a Democrat, Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. It could have led to the automatic expansion of sanctions against Iran if the mullahs failed to keep their agreements in the nuclear talks.
The measure had a clear majority in the Senate. It was within a whisker of having a veto-proof vote count. But AIPAC dropped the fight, Senator Charles Schumer crumpled under pressure from the White House, and the measure went by the boards. Rand Paul, it turns out, was with them. He opposed passing the measure in the middle of the Geneva talks (though he’d not have eased sanctions until we saw how Iran was performing).
To untangle all this one really has to step back and regard the broader fight between the Congress and the White House in respect of foreign affairs. There was a time when those of us on the right were rooting for the White House. That was during the Reagan years, when we had in the White House a grizzled two-term governor and wise Cold Warrior. He was a veteran of an anti-communist labor union. He had seichel. He towered over the Congress.
Things are completely different now. We’ve managed to hand the presidency to a youthful community-organizer-turned-legislator who, in Barack Obama, hadn’t finished a single term in the Senate. It’s not surprising that the most nimble conservatives are all for Congress asserting its powers. If it were left to me (fat chance, I comprehend.) I’d have passed the Nuclear Weapon-Free Iran Act in a trice, and I wouldn’t vote ten cents in foreign aid. Not a nickel.
It’s not a question of the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to come to terms with Israel. It’s a question of the administration’s willingness to come to terms with the Congress. This is why the so-called Jerusalem passport case — now before the Supreme Court for a second time — is so important. It’s not just that Congress wants an American born in Jerusalem to be able to have a passport saying he was born in Israel. It’s that Congress is tired of brooking interference.
That’s the spirit in which to take Rand Paul’s latest demarche. He and most of the rest of the Congress want Israel recognized as a Jewish state. No doubt he comprehends that, with the “Stand With Israel Act,” he’s stepped into a minefield. Whether he’ll backtrack in his own footsteps (as I did on the Golan 46 years ago) is hard to say. But it’s not hard to say that he is correct in the broad point he is making: Among the constitutional branches of the United States government it’s the Congress that, at least at the moment, has Israel’s back.
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.